Musharraf in the eye of a judicial storm

Gulf News, March 21, 2007

After a week of violent protests marking the lowest point in his relations with the judiciary, the media and civil society, Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf is currently in damage control mode.

He may well succeed in riding out the current storm, with the resources of the state at his command, and the ability to coax, cajole, threaten and bribe widely.

The disaster that began with Musharraf’s decision to sack Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has exposed the house of cards over which Musharraf presides.

If Musharraf and his fellow generals do not learn the real lessons of their current predicament, Pakistan will continue to hurtle forward from crisis to crisis.

After initially insisting that he had done nothing wrong, Musharraf claimed at the end of last week that the protests against his government were the result of a “conspiracy”.

Musharraf was most likely misguided in his decision to move against the Supreme Court Chief Justice by a scary report from an intelligence agency. If there was indeed a conspiracy against Musharraf, it came from quarters closest to him.

Citibanker Shaukat Aziz, who serves as prime minister with little public support, drew attention to the Musharraf-Aziz regime’s principal source of weakness when he said that his government would not allow anyone to “politicise” the public’s anger over judicial manipulation.

Overstepped their limits

Both the decision to fire the Chief Justice and the reaction to it are already political. By denying that they overstepped their limits and took an action that led to the expression of simmering discontent, Musharraf and Aziz betrayed their lack of understanding of political processes.

The general and his technocrat deputy both look upon governance as a management function devoid of politics, hence their expression of surprise at the political reaction to their judicial coup.

But the general and the technocrat fail to recognise that governance is a function of politics and it is just their good fortune and the result of the past mistakes of Pakistan’s political class that they have averted political calamity so far.

Now politics is catching up with them and unless they wake up to the value of politics, their little road show backed by billions of dollars in United States aid money is headed for a rough patch.

The apocryphal story is told of how Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayoub Khan, learnt that the nation had turned against him when one of his grandchildren came home chanting “Ayoub kutta hai hai” (Ayoub the dog, shame, shame).

The child told the grandfather that this was the popular chant at his elementary school though he was too young to know its meaning.

Ayoub Khan initiated talks with opposition politicians after five months of street protests and in the end handed power to another general. But he could never understand why the nation for which he had done so much in terms of military build-up and development turned against him.

Ayoub Khan’s attitude was not very different from that of the British vice-regal apparatus that complained against the ingratitude of South Asians.

The natives demanded independence under indigenous leaders who, in British eyes, did not compare favourably with the Raj’s track record of laying down railway lines, building irrigation systems, institutionalising education and developing modern governance.

Both Ayoub Khan and the British missed out the value of politics, which was defined by Sociologist Max Weber as “striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state”.


Musharraf’s mindset is, in many ways, not different from that of Ayoub Khan or the British officers preceding him. This mindset considers politics a lowly occupation and legitimacy a minor technicality.

Its other beliefs include the view that a government must be judged by its “performance”, not its constitutionality. That is why it considers charges of receiving kickbacks (ie financial corruption) as worse than violating or even suspending the constitution.

Pakistan’s generals and their English-speaking, drawing room dwelling supporters have tried repeatedly to make the nation walk in a straight line but their efforts have come to naught.

Politics is simply not the army’s job. It is not trained for it and is as incongruent in the political arena as an engineer in a hospital trying to fill the doctor’s shoes on grounds of the doctor’s incompetence.

The fiasco following Musharraf’s attempt to fire the Chief Justice and to silence the media should result in something more than short term damage control.

It should lead to a grand national bargain that diminishes the role of the army and the intelligence services in the nation’s life. Politics – the striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power among groups within the state -must be allowed to run its course.